By Mohan Krishnamoorthy
I had watched him score 119 not out in Manchester — an innings that announced his arrival on the world stage. I was in England those days. A few months later, I moved to Australia and there, I watched every ball he faced when he made 148 at the Sydney Cricket Ground in January 1992 in the company of Ravi Shastri. But more importantly I watched in awe, with pride and a growing sense of admiration as he braved the pace of Craig McDermott, Merv Hughes, Paul Rieffel, Mike Whitney and Tom Moody when he made 114 at Perth a month later. I had watched the young boy grow up to be a man — and then a legend, all in the space of 18 months. During that defining Perth innings, the Boy Wonder had become a man. To date, it remains the best innings I have watched Tendulkar play.
Or is it?
Was it that 241 not out in Sydney in 2004? Or the 111 in Johannesburg in November 1992? Or the 177 in Nottingham in 1996? Or the 169 in Cape Town in 1997? Or the 155 not out against Australia in Chennai in 1998? Or the 155 in Bloemfontein in 2001? Or the 193 in Leeds in 2002? Or the 194 not out in Multan in 2004? Or the 154 not out in Sydney in that Test in 2008?
There are too many wonderful knocks to list. But talk about the best Tendulkar innings always polarises opinions, like all talk about the man himself. There is no unique answer. Perhaps that is the point about greatness. We can’t quit agree on what constitutes greatness, although there can’t be much doubt on greatness itself.
And then there were the endless debates on whether Tendulkar played for himself or for his team. Siddhartha Vaidyanathan wrote on “Tendulkar and the ‘clutch’ question” in which he quotes his friend Jay, who said: “Most fans agree on what is a big game and what is not. There comes a time during these big games when most fans smell the moment, the moment when the game is balancing on the finest of threads. I have seen Tendulkar occasionally sense the moment and pounce on it, imposing his greatness on the occasion. But I feel I’ve seen him not seize these moments more often.”
Perhaps these arguments would never have happened if Tendulkar had finished the game off and won that Chennai Test against Pakistan in 1999. What that ignores is that there were a whole bunch of players who could have stayed with and helped a bruised Tendulkar win that game for India. Perhaps these arguments won’t have happened if Tendulkar hadn’t skied that Glenn McGrath bouncer in the 2003 World Cup final.
But that is also an integral part of Tendulkar’s greatness in a country that is only now getting used to thinking about greatness in cricket. Fans have to either criticise his 136 in Chennai against Pakistan for what he did not do, or celebrate it, for what he did.
Many will say that Tendulkar had extended his stay, that he ought to have retired from all forms of the game on April 2, 2011. But he continued playing all three forms of the game after that day. It was not his responsibility to select himself in the team. To play was his choice; one we must have respected. He had earned it. But did we respect him? No. Arguments raged notwithstanding the fact that, of the four member middle-order that have retired in the last four years, India has only found stable and able replacements for Rahul Dravid (Cheteshwar Pujara) and VVS Laxman (Virat Kohli). Four years after his retirement, India still does not have a steady replacement for Sourav Ganguly after trying out Yuvraj Singh, Suresh Raina, Subramaniam Badrinath, Ajinkya Rahane and Ravindra Jadeja — all of whom have had mixed success.
Yet, we were keen to disrobe “God” although it was clearly the duty of the national selectors to have a chat to the man and talk about retiring if they wanted to replace him.
Did he overstay his welcome? No. As I indicated earlier, in my view, he still had a year or two of Test cricket left in him. The team already saw the departure of Ganguly, Dravid, Laxman, Anil Kumble and perhaps Virender Sehwag and Zaheer Khan. These days, a team that loses all of its stalwarts in one fell swoop is called Australia which thought — somewhat arrogantly — that there is an endlessly rich talent pipeline that affords the selectors the luxury of a brutal revolving door. National sporting teams need to carefully nurture talent, and this needs the hands of an artist and not the axe of a wood-chopper.
Of course, Tendulkar’s place in the Indian team has never really been questioned (even in 1996) except, perhaps, in the last one year or so of his career. Tendulkar still seemed to love the game and every time he took the field, seemed to play the game with the same zest that I saw in Manchester some 22 years ago. And he can still hold that No 4 slot.
In his retirement announcement, Tendulkar says, “It’s hard for me to imagine a life without playing cricket because it’s all I have ever done since I was 11 years old.”
His job was to play. He knew nothing else.
So, the debates will continue to rage. And I had one within five minutes of his retirement announcement. I thought that his best shot was the straight drive to a fast bowler. A colleague said it was the upper cut over the slips, back arched, eyes focused on ball, neck slightly inclined. Yet another said that it was the backfoot drive through the covers. Another said it had to be the casual flick through deep square leg. We could not arrive at a meaningful conclusion. Perhaps one is not necessary.
We moved instead, to a discussion on his best innings ever: 241 not out, 194 not out, 111, 177, 155 not out… An hour later, with no conclusion in sight, we moved on to his best One-Day International (ODI) innings ever. And so the night meandered on.
When an international sportsperson plays for as long as Sachin Tendulkar has, it is hard — nay, almost impossible — to pick out one specific shot, one specific innings, one specific moment. All of them were perhaps equally brilliant. All of them were crafted carefully. But more importantly, all of them were played by a young, enthusiastic, curly haired lad who loved the game, loved playing for India and wanted nothing more than to give pleasure to the people who watched him play.
A day after the announcement, the numbness is gone. The sadness is gone. I only feel pleasure. Pleasure that I watched it all — from 1989 to 2013. Pleasure that I argued about him— for him. Pleasure that he enhanced the appreciation I have for the game. Pleasure that he was there as a beacon of hope in 2000, a time when the match-fixing saga raged; a time when I thought I would abandon my support for the game I loved so much because I had learned that some of the men who played the game had played it to line their own pockets.
But then “God” was there. He did not know how to cheat or how to throw games. He could not be procured. And in the end, his love of the game is really the measure of his greatness. He played for the team always. He played for the fans who loved the game always. Throughout his life, he lived cocooned in the warm comfort of his home or on the cricket field. He knew of no other life other than cricket.
Meanwhile, the arguments will continue unabated…
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